Robert Schumann's life and works have stood as an emblem for the spirit of Romanticism. This is not surprising, given the dramatic events that undoubtedly helped to shape the course of Schumann's musical career. In this new biography, John Daverio succeeds in tackling myths and setting many assumptions in context, without losing sight of the fact that "for Schumann, the line between the personal and the artistic is a fine one".
He dismisses, for instance, the popular view that Schumann was an inept orchestrator and was unable to control larger musical forms. As evidence to the contrary, he cites "evocative scoring" in scenes from Schumann's Faust, and a "gossamer texture" achieved in Manfred through muted violin sixteenths, arabesques in the winds and harp harmonics. The final scene-complex of Das Paradies und die Peri, where a progressive tonal scheme and network of melodic cross-references demonstrate Schumann's ability to control the larger form in his own style, adds weight to the argument.
Daverio also attempts to clear some of the "fog of occultism" surrounding accounts of Schumann's descent into madness, cautioning against claims that this was reflected in the composer's later works. While, for some critics, a dimming of the composer's genius was already apparent at the end of the 1840s, Daverio argues that the dementia of his last years should be viewed as "the reversal that occasioned an abrupt interruption in the work that had continued apace until January 1854".
A host of questionable biographical theories, such as those linking Schumann's finger ailment to treatments for syphilis or a psychosomatic reaction to guilt over excessive masturbation, are equally discounted.
What Daverio offers instead is a comprehensively researched and mature appraisal of the real influences on Schumann's personal and musical development. First and possibly foremost among these was Schumann's lifelong preoccupation with literature, and its relationship to music. The author devotes three chapters at the beginning of the book to a detailed exploration of the formation of Schumann's musico-literary sensibility, his notion of music as literature "in tones", and his ground-breaking unstuffy style in music criticism - characterised in his famous phrase in the journal Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung announcing the arrival of Chopin on the musical scene: "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!" On the personal side, Daverio makes some fresh and telling observations on the impact of the composer's relationship with his young virtuoso wife, Clara. The development of this relationship is well documented in the Schumanns' faithfully kept marriage diary. Equally revealing are Schumann's travel notes made during gruelling whistle-stop concert tours by the couple, during which Schumann's health and ego invariably suffered. The grandest of these, a tour of Russian cities in 1844, Daverio describes as marking a fault-line in Schumann's life, provoking a series of "seismic shocks". The author suggests that Clara's holding centre-stage while on tour, literally and figuratively, was not only a source of annoyance to Robert but may also have aggravated his mental condition.
Perhaps the most reassuring quality of this book is the author's unwillingness to rely for his analysis on artificial divisions in Schumann's development as a composer. As Daverio points out, Schumann as a subject does encourage a methodical style of review, since this is how he ordered his own life. Chapters in the book focusing on piano music, song, symphony, chamber music, oratorio and dramatic music reflect Schumann's "system" for working through the musical genres, partly to keep pace with the established masters and partly to keep the ever-threatening chaos of an uncertain future at bay.
But Daverio acknowledges that the neat compartmentalisation of creative activity is really "no more than a convenience for biographers", and shows how Schumann's musical exploration discloses an overarching system often characterised by overlaps, retrenchments and unexpected turns. The result of the author's approach is a view of the "whole Schumann". As he says, this is "not the one known to almost everyone, the dreamy composer of quirky piano pieces and gorgeous songs who met a tragic end", but the one who "like caviar, is something of an acquired taste".
Tony Tysome is a reporter, The THES.
Robert Schumann: Herald of a New Poetic Age
Author - John Daverio
ISBN - 0 19 509180 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 607